Posts Tagged ‘Clustering’

I got to thinking about writing the other morning while writing my morning pages. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, introduced me to morning pages. She says “In order to retrieve your creativity, you need to find it.” Morning pages are three pages of longhand stream of consciousness writing done each morning before you do anything else. I suppose I should do mine first thing. Instead, I wait until after breakfast. Then I pull up a chair, fire up my pipe, savor that first sip of fresh brewed coffee, pull out a fresh sheet of paper, uncap one of my favorite fountain pens and let my mind go.


The morning pages ritual is not about writing. Morning pages are an outlet for your thoughts and feelings. Morning pages are a mind dump and you never know what will come out. Hint: getting things out into the daylight is the whole point.

I wondered. If morning pages aren’t about writing maybe first drafts aren’t about writing either. The same holds true for clustering and writing vignettes. Although we might be using writing tools (in my case pen and paper) we aren’t writing at all, we’re freeing our minds and allowing our ideas to come out on the page, real or virtual, without pre-judging or organizing.

We lump every activity we do while creating a written piece into “writing” but it’s not all the same. We do different things at different stages and label all of what we do as “writing.” Thinking about this can take you in circles.

If all writing is re-writing (and ultimately it is) it means we are editing at some stages. But wait! If we sit down to write and censor our first drafts as we write then we’re editors when we ought to be writers. Kind of makes you dizzy thinking about it.

The great sports writer “Red” Smith once said: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Yes, and the more you edit in the early idea stages, the more you tighten the tourniquet until the blood flow of insight slows to a disappointing drip or stops altogether.

Balance. Balance and co-operation between our right brain design mind and our left brain inner critic are the keys to finding our voice. Only then will we be writing from within. We may lump all we do when we create into the term writing and that’s OK — so long as we keep things in the proper sequence.

All design, all truly creative acts are iterative and circular. We go round and round, spiraling closer and closer to the finished work. Writing is a journey of discovery, of finding and polishing the gems and discarding (or saving for another time) the ideas that don’t fit.

Going in circles reminds me of the merry-go-rounds in playgrounds all over. Fun places where kids spin themselves in circles making themselves dizzy. I remember getting that merry-go-round cranking then laying back to watch the sky go by. Relax on your writing merry-go-round. Be easy and have fun. Allow your self (your dragon) to come out and play.

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I’ve been writing all my life. It’s only in the past few years that I’ve begun recording my thoughts on real or virtual paper.

“We all cluster mentally throughout our lives without knowing it; we have simply never made these clusterings visible on paper.”
[Gabriele Rico in Writing the Natural Way]

Mental clustering can happen anywhere at any time. You’re clustering when your thoughts wander while you stand under a hot shower, while your mind drifts like the clouds you’re watching as you lie in the grass on a hot summer day, while walking alone or even while driving your car.

Clustering on the page is how you record your musings. When you take out pen and paper to cluster, you’re playing with words, phrases, circles, lines, arrows and other doodles. Clustering is neither logical nor is it diagrammatic — it’s spontaneous and informal. Your inner critic will think clustering is boring and leave. Perfect! Clustering simply happens when you relax and call forth the fire of your dragon.


Begin by writing a word or phrase in the center of the page. Circle it. Write down the next thing that pops into your head and circle that. Connect the circles with a line and an arrow. The arrows are fun to draw, distract your inner critic and simply show which thought leads to the next. Follow your thoughts where they lead you without questioning or editing. If you run out of ideas, doodle around with circles, lines and arrows until the next thought jumps into your mind. It will.

Come back to the center when you run to the end of a train. Branch out where it feels right. Clustering is messy and fun and revealing. Cluster your way. There are no “rules.” Your dragon loves the visual play.

When you get the urge to write then do it.
Write what comes to mind. You don’t have to use everything (or anything at all) from your cluster. The cluster is a catalyst designed to call forth the fire of your dragon. A fire that burns your inner thoughts onto the paper without burning the page.

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Clustering will lead you on journeys of discovery, surprise and delight. It may seem a bit scary to set off on a journey when you don’t know the destination, but this is the magic of clustering. Let go, don’t censor, follow your feelings and enjoy the ride. First I’ll show you the final destination for my “Hands” cluster, a Haiku, then take you with me on my journey.

Hand security_wm

Haiku: Hands

Tears fall in silence.
A whisper touch drinks the pain.
Hands. How wonderful.

I wrote the word “hands” in the middle of a blank sheet, then as each thought occurred to me, I wrote it down and circled it. One thought led to another and another until I “knew” what to write.


Digital reproduction of my original hand drawn cluster

The vignette is reproduced below. I didn’t worry about punctuation, formatting or any other left-brain, inner critic stuff. I wrote until I felt I should stop.

hands see in the dark
eyes that touch
other hands
eyes and tears
wipe them away
and touch
another hand
a shoulder
a breast
a soul
electric flow
touch together
wring apart
hands — how sad
hands — how wonderful
they breathe
and talk
and see
in the dark
turn on the light

This first vignette is pregnant with ideas. I worked with it, each version shrinking until I had the idea for a Haiku. Haikus are fun. They force you into a compression where each word must carry so much meaning.

It all begins with a single word or phrase. A cluster, an outpouring of ideas and feelings, a vignette and a creative journey that you can repeat time after time. Clustering is magic, a license to listen to your dragon. Your dragon isn’t as bashful as you might think. He’s just waiting for your invitation to the dance.

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Clustering opens the floodgates of creativity. It quiets your inner critic and invites your creative self (I think of him as my dragon) to come out and play. Clustering is easy, it’s quick and it works. I learned (am still learning) the technique from “Writing the Natural Way” by Gabriele Rico, PhD.

Here’s an example that illustrates how clustering works for me and what I did each step of the way. I always use a blank sheet of paper and one of my fountain pens when I cluster. I recreated my hand drawn cluster with FreeMind so I could include it here.

Screenshot-FreeMind - MindMap Mode - As.mm

This sequence comes from the “What Am I?” metaphor exercise in Chapter Ten. I put “as” in the center of a sheet, drew a circle around it and clustered whatever popped into my head. I simply wrote down what my dragon told me. In one branch (the first I think) I saw myself as light, in the other as a bird. I don’t recall how long this took but clusters typically take less than three minutes, often less than a minute. Just let loose, trust your dragon and let the ideas rip.

At some point you’ll experience what Dr. Rico calls The Trial-Web Shift. As you cluster, you suddenly just know what you want to write about and you start writing.

This next step is what she calls the vignette. Go with it and write quickly. It will only take a minute or two. Here’s my vignette from this cluster.

I am a great hawk clinging to a strong branch, swaying, accepting the power of the wind, climbing into the light of sudden insight, plunging earthward, claws extended, pouncing on my prey and flying off, my latest idea, my newest insight screaming, then quiet as I find safe haven, land to devour and digest. I’m always hungry.

Once you have that first rough vignette, go back and play with it until you’re satisfied. You may want to invite your inner critic to join the party with you and your dragon.

I didn’t do anything with the vignette that day. I put my sketchbook away and came back to it another day. It wanted to be a poem so I played, wrote out and crossed out four pages of handwritten poem drafts until I was satisfied. I probably managed a few more tweaks when I typed out the final draft.


Here’s the final published version

Poetry: Ideas

A great hawk
I watch and wait
spiraling on thermals of insight

A great hawk
I thunder silently
impaling the unwary

A great hawk
I stretch my wings
dripping the blood of ideas

A great hawk
I settle to ground
devouring in delight

A great hawk
I watch and wait
riding my hunger

So what do you think? Does this help? Not being the bashful type, I’d be happy to do more of these. Let me know. Writing the Natural Way is a fantastic book. Not dry with theory, it’s a real course that pulls you in as a participant and it works. I had absolutely no idea where my clustering would lead and ended up with a neat little poem. Clustering is like magic. Maybe because dragons are magical creatures?

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